Pandemic petition wrecks candidates, ballot initiatives

James Craig, a former Detroit police chief who ran for Michigan governor, said he remembers pleasant conversations with petition circulators at his campaign rallies this spring and never suspected anything unusual was about to happen.

“I’m the candidate who gives speeches outside and you think you have professionals working for you on the ground collecting signatures. I had no idea anything was wrong,” said Craig, who was considered the front runner for the GOP nomination. He had raised $2 million, more than any other Republican scheduled to run against incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November.

But a May state election panel disqualified Craig and four other Republican gubernatorial candidates and removed them from the GOP primary after officials found thousands of forged signatures on their candidate petitions.

And nine out of 10 civic groups in Michigan have failed to set a deadline for signatures for the 2022 ballot. Some leaders said they were afraid Their lists had been compromised through forgery and sloppy work and are now targeting the 2024 election instead.

Similar problems will plague other states, experts fear, as the election season intensifies and more states seek abortion changes through ballot initiatives. Michigan supporters face a July 11 deadline to collect more than 425,000 signatures for a Electoral initiative to establish abortion rights in the state constitution.

Because of the pandemic and remote work, there are fewer people on city streets to collect signatures, and the tight labor market has pushed up the cost of candidates and campaigns to hire signature collectors. That makes it harder for grassroots campaigns to get the job done without the help of funders.

The troubles have renewed debate over paying ballot circulators by signature and whether it leads to fraud or gives wealthy candidates and groups an advantage. Eight states have banned signature payments, and this year Florida expanded its existing ban on signature payments, making it a criminal offense, although it still allows other forms of payment.

“We will see many more states that have the same problems as we do [in Michigan]said Corrine Rivera Fowler, director of political and legal advocacy at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. Based in Washington, DC, the center advises liberal groups across the country on electoral initiatives.

“If you just want to hurry, mistakes can be made,” Rivera Fowler said.

Michigan’s gubernatorial primary has been the canary in the coal mine as the June 1 deadline for submitting nominations, but similar deadlines face late June for California, July for Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon and Washington state in August for Colorado.

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In Nebraska, opponents of a electoral initiative who would require photo ID to vote, have complained about aggressive tactics by paid signature collectors. Marlene Ricketts, the mother of Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, has donated $376,000 to the cause.

The cost of paying for signature collections has made it harder for commoners and easier for the wealthy to get laws they want, said John Cartier, director of voting rights at Civic Nebraska, a progressive group opposed to the photo ID initiative and one supported for medical marijuana.

“It’s a pay-to-play system. The super rich in Nebraska can just write a check and fund the entire initiative,” Cartier said. Meanwhile, other advocates are struggling to pay for the signature collection, he said.

But volunteers work alongside paid workers on the photo ID initiative, said Douglas Kagan, president of the conservative Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom and a volunteer petition distributor. He called critics “hypocrites who don’t like it when we raise money for conservative causes”.

Kagan said paid signature collectors approached him at a gas station and followed all the rules.

A judge from Nebraska added a crease on the state’s ballot initiative process on June 13, which prevents the state from enforcing a 100-year-old requirement that attorneys obtain signatures from 5% of voters in 38 of the state’s 93 counties. The judge agreed with medical marijuana advocates that it gives too much power to rural voters at the expense of urban areas.

In Florida this month, a Federal judge overturned a 2021 law Capping contributions to support electoral initiatives to $3,000, refuting state officials’ arguments that the “process is vulnerable to the influence of large donors who fund petition collectors, who in turn have incentives to forge petition signatures,” the ruling said. The judge saw “no reason to believe that large individual contributions … are to blame for this dynamic.”

Labor shortages drive up prices for signature collection services. In 2012, it cost $1 to $3 per signature, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures opinion poll. That recently rose to as much as $20 per signature, according to a May report by a Michigan secretary of state, who blamed a “persistent lack of in-person events” where circulators typically work.

“There are labor shortages, and these are temporary jobs, so they’re not the most attractive positions,” Rivera Fowler said.

In addition to Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming prohibit payments by signature, according to Ballotpedia.

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In California, the Democratic-dominated Legislature has repeatedly approved bans on payments per signature, only to be vetoed by Democratic governors. A new bill would require a bold notice at the top of the signature sheet, urging voters to sign only if they have seen an up-to-date list of the top donors to the initiative.

Too many paid signature collectors ignore an existing law that requires them to provide the list of top donors, said Walker Hershey, a California Senate legislative adviser to Democratic state Sen. Tom Umberg, a law supporter.

California lawmakers passed a ban on payments per signature for referendums in 2021, stating that the practice “gives signature collectors an incentive to deceive voters to get their signatures.”

But Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the measure, writing in a veto message that it could hurt grassroots campaigns: “Payment by signature remains one of the most economical ways to qualify to vote. This measure could therefore make qualifying many initiatives unaffordable for all but the wealthiest interests.” Lawmakers failed to override the veto in January.

Former Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed bills in 2011 and 2018 that would have banned the practice.

The Maine legislature plans to ban payments by signature in 2019, with a original statement that “a large number of invalidated signatures … provides strong evidence that the practice of paying for collected signatures has corrupted the signature collection process.” However, the invoice has been changed and only requires disclosure of the payment methods used to obtain signatures.

In Michigan, the Secretary of State’s May report indicated that many of the fraudulent signatures were copied from outdated voter rolls and that individuals were passing sheets of paper to forge signatures in different handwriting.

One of the Michigan initiatives that did not go to a vote this year called for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. One Fair Wage, the sponsor, will continue collecting signatures with a goal of raising 600,000 by the end of June and will target the 2024 vote, said Saru Jayaraman, president of the Washington, DC-based group.

Ballot advocates in Michigan had a particularly tough time this year because a court battle over ballot circulation rules delayed efforts to collect signatures until mid-February. Only after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the case petition forms could be printed in January. That delay in printing forms, coupled with inclement weather, kept advocates from collecting signatures until early May, Jayaraman said.

“There are signature-collecting firms that have their own people, and then there are independent contractors who supplement them in times of crisis. Everyone in Michigan has faced a super crunch this cycle,” Jayaraman said.

Michiganders for Fair Lending, which is seeking a ballot initiative that would cap interest rates on payday loans, organized the only petition that met the filing deadline. This group threw around 170,000 out of 575,000 signatures it collected prior to submission. The leaders “didn’t notice the kind of fraud that plagued the GOP gubernatorial campaigns,” but did find more typical mistakes, like signers writing a birthday in place of the signing date or using the wrong county name, spokesman Josh Hovey said.

Earlier this month, Michigan businessman Perry Johnson, another Republican gubernatorial candidate disqualified for fraudulent signatures, lost a bid in federal court to stop the ballot printing while he argues that his case should be taken. Five more Republicans will appear on the ballots. And Craig has decided to run a registered mail campaign for the August 2 primary in hopes of relaunching his bid to unseat Whitmer.